The Anarchist assassination of President McKinley

Everybody knows about the assassination of two US Presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F Kennedy in 1963. But what about President William McKinley on 14 September, 1901? Shot at point-blank range by an anarchist called Leon Czolgosz and dying of his wounds just over a week later. As we move into a stormy political period worldwide, this assassination is the one we should all know about.

The murder of McKinley was part of a global wave of assassinations that claimed top political leaders including McKinley. Other victims of the anarchists included the King of Italy, President of France, Tsar of Russia, King of Greece, and the Empress of Austria. In 1920, an anarchist bomb detonated on Wall Street, the financial heart of New York, killed 38 people. The worst terrorist atrocity in the city until 9/11.

In the 1890s and up until the 1920s, there were secret anarchist cells operating on American soil planning attacks in the United States and around the world. The successful plot to kill the King of Italy, Umberto I, in 1900 was hatched in New Jersey and implemented by an Italian-American called Gaetano Bresci, who travelled to Italy to carry out the murderous deed.

The assassination of President McKinley was carried out by a working-class Polish American, Leon Czolgosz, who was known to some of the leading anarchists in the United States including Emma Goldman – a globally recognised figure at the time. Czolgosz may have carried out the crime as a lone operator to prove his worth to comrades, some of whom thought he was an ‘agent provocateur’ in the pay of the police. Or he may have been directed by other anarchists.

DISCOVER: The eight assassination attempts on Queen Victoria

Ten facts about the anarchist assassination of President William McKinley

Here are ten facts about the McKinley assassination that you might not know:

  1. Newspapers had been warning of an anarchist-inspired attack on the President for weeks before. One senior police officer thought the same anarchist cell behind the killing of King Umberto of Italy was planning to murder McKinley.
  2. President McKinley’s killer – the anarchist Leon Czolgosz – was suspected by his fellow anarchists of being a police spy.
  3. Czolgosz hid his gun in a handkerchief and in a major security breach fire at very close range at McKinley.
  4. An African-American called James Benjamin Parker, born to enslaved parents in 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia stopped Czolgosz firing a third shot into McKinley and his heroism led to public call for a statute to be erected of Parker. Sadly he died in poverty six years later.
  5. Anarchists were rounded up across the United States after the death of President McKinley including the infamous Emma Goldman described as the “queen of anarchism”
  6. President McKinley loved meeting the public and boasted he could shake fifty hands a minute
  7. McKinley removed one of the bullets that Czolgosz had fired himself as he was being stretchered out as that bullet had glanced off his suit buttons while the other had penetrated his abdomen and would kill him
  8. The President urged his security detail to stop beating Czolgosz after the shooting
  9. The assassination happened at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York state, and there was an early X-Ray machine being used as a fun exhibit but it was not deployed by medical staff to find the bullet lodged deep in the President
  10. Czolgosz was condemned to the electric chair but a film widely circulated on YouTube purporting to show his execution is actually a re-enactment with an actor produced by Thomas Edison’s film company. His last words before the volts were fired through his body were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.

This YouTube film below that I presented, directed and produced tells most of the story of the McKinley assassination. Below it, I share even more salacious details – including questions we have to ask about the personal lives of and psychology of these anarchists.

The ceaseless slayings by anarchist assassins had experts scratching their heads. What was motivating these killers? Psychology was in its infancy. Months before McKinley’s death, Professor Cesare Lombroso at the University of Turin published a study that reads today more like a tabloid newspaper rant than a serious analysis. He called the anarchist assassins “moral madmen, half-educated, or not educated at all”.

He took aim specifically at Luigi Luccheni, a fellow Italian who had murdered the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 with a knife while she was taking a stroll in the Swiss city of Geneva. Professor Lombroso pointed to Luccheni’s troubled childhood as “the son of a tippling priest of unsteady mind, and of a servant”. Raised in a foundling asylum, then farmed out to various foster parents, followed by a period of begging. And he was epileptic. Seemingly “gentle natured” and kind to children. Nevertheless a terrible anger was building up inside him.

Luccheni “feels the breath of anarchy” – Lombroso wrote – which he believes can “avenge his many grievances”. This is a recognised pattern in radicalisation today. Grievance creates a cognitive opening for terrorist ideology which legitimises and enables violent action. He stabbed the Empress. After his arrest, Luccheni claimed he would have killed any aristocrat who crossed his path that day “even if she had been a little baby”.

At his trial, Luccheni demanded the death penalty. He wanted to die. Professor Lombroso concluded that “his homicide is nothing except an indirect suicide”. What law enforcement today calls ‘suicide by cop’ when an individual knowingly provokes the police into a deadly response to kill themselves. Lombroso noted this character trait in many of the anarchist assassins of his time.

But then Lombroso took a weirder turn in his analysis. Not only was Luccheni suicidal (he did go on to hang himself in jail), but he was…”in temperament a homosexual”. Worse – a homosexual with epilepsy! This is of course wildly offensive today. Lombroso’s theory is that anarchists like Luccheni swung between criminality and anarchy. He could tell what phase Luccheni was in by his handwriting – going from “small and feminine characters” (presumably in his homosexual/anarchist phase) to criminality, when his handwriting got bigger and more butch!

Lombroso characterised anarchists as something akin to werewolves who kill in a trance-like state and then have to sleep it off. As for the epilepsy: “Epilepsy, moreover, is extremely frequent among anarchists, and one might say that it was the basis of action among the bomb-throwing anarchists”. The debate about the relationship between mental illness and radicalisation into terrorism is still very live today but experts are more careful about how they frame the issue.

This is an image of Luccheni under arrest below looking very pleased with himself.

The contemporary debate about the motivations of anarchist killers threw up some crazy ideas. Madame De Thebes, a Paris-based palmist, was sure that the answer lay in examining the shape of anarchists’ hands. She had examined the hands of several anarchist assassins and noted marked similarities.

The hand of a standard murderer is less detailed than an ordinary hand because the lines indicating love, long life, and domestic happiness are not there apparently. Neither are the raised mounts that tell of success and “worthy ambition”. But the politically motivated murderer, Madame De Thebes observed “has a less brutal hand than the ordinary murderer”.

Although the Parisian palmist had nothing good to say about the hand of Italian-born, French resident Sante Geronimo Caserio – an anarchist who successfully stabbed President Marie François Sadi Carnot to death in 1894 and was guillotined for his crime. His hand was “repellent” with four fingers of almost equal length and a thumb that was “strong, heavy, and brutal”. In a diagram reproduced below, De Thebes was most insistent that a murderer’s was invariably “short and thick”.

If you enjoy my video on anarchist assassinations – it is part of a playlist on YouTube about terrorists in history so do watch some of the others that cover everybody from Jesus Christ to Guy Fawkes.

Queen Victoria assassination attempt

Queen Victoria – the eight assassination attempts

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there was a wave of anarchist inspired political assassinations. The Empress of Austria, King of Italy, Prime Minister of France, King of Greece and President of the United States (William McKinley) were all killed by assassins. But one ruler blithely survived an astonishing eight assassination attempts during the 19th century: step forward indestructible Queen Victoria.

DISCOVER: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

While other heads of state breathed their last – the Queen of Britain and Empress of India seemed to almost bat away the bullets. So let’s list all those attempts on Her Majesty’s life:

  1. Edward Oxford was the first would-be queen killer taking a shot at Victoria in 1840. She was still a young woman and had barely been on the throne for three years. Her assailant was a mild-manner unemployed man called Edward Oxford. Victoria’s security was unbelievably lax. Shooting her as she drove past in her carriage was beyond easy. Oxford just stepped forward, took aim and fired. At his trial, claims to be part of a conspiratorial group called Young England proved to be a fantasy and it soon become clear he was insane. The jury certainly thought so and off he went to an asylum for the next 24 years. After which he was sent off to Australia where he assumed a new identity and married a woman who apparently never knew who he actually was. Oxford – now called John Freeman – was an upstanding member of the local community and nobody was any the wiser.
  2. Two years later and a man called John Francis, described by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, as a “little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”, pulled out a pistol and fired on the queen as she drove down Constitution Hill. But the pistol mercifully jammed and Francis ran away.
  3. Well, if you don’t succeed the first time – come back and have another go. Incredibly, the following day – 30 May 1842 – Francis did exactly that. This time he was arrested, sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to death. Strictly speaking, the punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I’ll spare you the details. This horrific medieval punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1870. Francis, it turned out, was the son of an employee at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Before taking aim at the queen, he’d been seen walking round the nearby park yelling obscenities about Victoria – so not exactly keeping a low profile.
  4. 1842 was going to be quite memorable for Queen Victoria. Because she’d barely got over two assassination attempts in May when along came another one on 3 July. This time the pistol wielder was John William Bean. His gun was a ramshackle affair that failed to fire. Bean was only four feet high and severely disabled. He was clearly a very unhappy chap and the subsequent story was that his assassination attempt was more or less a cry for help. But Victorian England wasn’t such a kind place. The order went out – I kid you not – to round up every ‘hunchback’ in the vicinity. Bean was captured but shown some leniency – by which I mean he wasn’t hanged publicly but sent to a pretty dreadful prison. In fact, he was imprisoned at the Millbank Penitentiary – which is now the site of Tate Britain in south London. Eventually released, he got married, had a son but happiness proved elusive. He lived not far from my house here in the Camberwell district of London and in 1882, killed himself with poison.
  5. Bean claimed to have been inspired by Edward Oxford – as did the perpetrator of the next assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Like Oxford, William Hamilton was unemployed. His gun was only loaded with powder and there doesn’t seem to have been a serious desire to murder the queen. Hamilton was Irish and had left his homeland during the appalling famine of the 1840s. By 1849, when he took aim at Her Majesty, he was broke and like many at the bottom of society, thought prison might be a better option than life on the streets. However, Hamilton instead was transported to Gibraltar and from there to Australia.
  6. Hard to know whether to regard this one as an assassination attempt – but Robert Pate certainly meant the queen considerable harm. A former army lieutenant in the Tenth Hussars, life on civvy street hadn’t been kind to this gentleman. Many Londoners saw this strange man marching frantically around Hyde Park as if he was still on military service. Frankly, he became a bit of a joke. Even, it’s said, Queen Victoria was aware of him. But the joke turned sour when he ran at her coach and whacked the sovereign on the head with a cane. She was left with severe bruising and I think it’s safe to say that despite her famous stiff upper lip – this was a deeply unpleasant incident. This was in 1850 and it’s simply mind-boggling that Victoria’s protection was not up to scratch.
  7. Queen Victoria now had a two decade respite in her long reign until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor raised his gun. Like Hamilton, O’Connor was an Irishman. But whereas Hamilton seemed to have no political motivation, O’Connor claimed his act was intended to goad the British state into releasing Irish Republican prisoners. This was a time when the movement for Irish independence from the British Empire was gathering pace. And Irish nationalists were the first to bring what we would now call terrorism to the British mainland to make their point. Well, another Celt – the queen’s Scottish servant (and very, very close friend) John Brown – wrestled O’Connor to the ground. As with previous assassins, he was spared the rope and instead got prison, a spell in an asylum and transportation to Australia.
  8. Ten years later in 1882 came the final assassination attempt by Roderick Maclean. Now this was at a time when anarchist killings were picking up. But Maclean’s shooting at Victoria outside Windsor Station was a clumsy affair. Schoolboys from Eton College beat him to the ground with their umbrellas – which can hardly have been the heroic image he was striving for. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

There clearly wasn’t the appetite in 19th century England to impose draconian punishments on these assassins. Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy with radical movements like the Chartists and the emerging trade unions as well as other pressure groups campaigning for a more humane and just society.

For her part, Queen Victoria seems to have been bitterly disappointed at the relatively lenient punishments. She wanted consequences that were way more severe. A noose around the neck and a long drop. It left the queen with the distinct impression that parliament viewed these incidents as either irrelevant or maybe worse – amusing.

She, though, was not amused.

Movies that promote conspiracy theories!

Did the moon landings ever happen? Not according to this movie!

Since the first feature films were made by Hollywood in the early 20th century – they have been peddling conspiracy theories. All social media has done is amplify this stuff to an unparalleled degree. Whether it’s faked moon landings or clones of Hitler being created in Latin America – there’s a movie for every conspiracy theory you can imagine!

How about the moon landings never happened? Ever since Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind by stepping to the surface of the moon – there’s been endless speculation that it never happened. One conspiracy theory is that fake filmed footage to fool the public was overseen by Stanley Kubrick who had just directed 2001: A Space Odyssey which included scenes on the moon.

In 1978, James Brolin and O. J. Simpson played astronauts in the conspiracy theory movie Capricorn One. The plot involves a manned mission to Mars that goes wrong due to technical faults with the space module. To avoid embarrassment, the government creates a Mars-like environment in a studio and the astronauts pretend to have landed on the red planet. But in order to keep things totally secret, the astronauts have to be killed. This played to lingering widespread suspicions that nobody had ever been to the moon.

Since the end of the Second World War, there’s been a great deal of speculation about how many of Hitler’s top Nazis secretly fled Germany to Latin America. Was the Vatican involved? Did fascist and military dictators in Latin American countries shelter some of the most evil people in the 20th century? The 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil certainly thought so.

This has to be one of the most absurd conspiracy theory plots ever concocted. Veteran Hollywood actor Gregory Peck (who must have needed the money) plays Dr Josef Mengele, a real-life Nazi doctor who conducted unspeakable experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The movie had him in Brazil decades later developing Hitler clones. The intention was that these little boys would grow up to be Fuhrers and take over the world.

The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has been blamed on the CIA, the mafia and of course Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1991, director Oliver Stone brought us JFK – a conspiracy theory laden feast of conjecture and inference. Most controversially, it pointed an accusing finger at Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s immediate successor as President of the United States. Stone came in for a mountain of criticism but the movie was a box office smash.

The JFK conspiracy theory movie

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate gave us the story of a US President secretly in the grip of the Soviet Union. The champion of the free world was actually a Communist agent. I know what some of you are thinking – replace the Soviet Union with Russia and we have a Manchurian Candidate in the White House today! In 2004, the film was remade with a president under the control of a multinational corporation. Time for another update then?

FIND OUT MORE: Movies about the Nazis

Forward to 1990 and we have the release of Godfather III – the third of the Godfather gangster trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s arguably the weakest of the three films. The conspiracy theory plot features the murder of a recently elected pope and financial skullduggery within the Vatican. These are heavy references to the real-life scandal at the Vatican controlled Banco Ambrosiano at the end of the 1970s and the sudden death of Pope John Paul I only a month after his election in 1978.

The theme of a murdered pope continues with Angels and Demons – a movie based on the novel by Dan Brown.

Are there any movies you’ve enjoyed that promote crazy or feasible conspiracy theories?

Lewis Powell – the handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.

Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.

In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.

Lewis Powell – handsome but violent

Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

DISCOVER MORE: the real American Nazis!

Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.

Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.

The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.

READ MORE: Comparing Roman and American slavery

Here is Lewis Powell in his 1860s male model glory!

Man in the High Castle: the real American Nazis?

The Man in the High Castle – does it tell us anything about the real American Nazis of the past?

2018 will see the return of the grim dystopian TV series The Man in the High Castle – an imagining of the United States conquered by both the Nazis and Japanese at the end of World War II. Several years after the conquest, the east coast is depicted as firmly part of the Third Reich. Americans in SS uniforms enforce Nazi race codes dictated to them by their masters in Berlin.

The real American Nazis

You might wonder what kind of American in real life would ever salute the swastika? Though since the 2016 riot in Charlottesville and the proliferation of extreme right wing accounts on Twitter – it’s getting sadly easier to imagine such a terrible thing.

The truth is that there has been a long history of Americans flirting with Nazism.

Just months before President Franklin Roosevelt took the country into World War II, American Nazis held a huge rally at Madison Square Gardens. The German American Bund, an organisation aspiring to be the Nazi party of the United States, was led by a naturalised American, born and educated in Germany, called Fritz Julius Kuhn.

A rally of American Nazis in the 1930s

Some of the footage of that rally has only recently been re-discovered and turned into an excellent film short by Marshall Curry. It’s truly chilling to watch:

Throughout the 1930s, he rallied a large number of German Americans and fans of Hitler. Click HERE to see some startling copyright images of Nazis marching in America at that time. You almost have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing.

Although Kuhn staged some disturbingly well attended spectacles, he met opposition from other German Americans opposed to Hitler, the Jewish community and both federal and state authorities.

But in spite of protests by anti-Nazis, the fascists continued to openly recruit. For example, supporters of the German American Settlement League, another Nazi front organisation, organised a youth camp in Yaphank, New York state in 1938.

On that occasion, the assistant district attorney moved fast to arrest some of those involved on the grounds they were working for a foreign power….Germany.

He could not tolerate young people saluting the Nazi flag and pledging allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of the US President. Here is the assistant DA explaining why he had to take action against the youth camp:

Kuhn met Hitler in 1936 – the year Germany hosted the Olympics. But he got a cool reception. Most likely, Hitler didn’t want to provoke Washington when he was planning his various invasions of Europe.

Kuhn was eventually imprisoned in late 1939 for embezzling funds from the Bund. In 1943, he was stripped of his US citizenship. Then he was deported to Germany. Unfortunately for him, Hitler and the Nazis had been wiped off the face of the earth. Kuhn was put on trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. Here is a news report from the time where he tries to plead his innocence.

In the years after World War II, you’d have thought that being a Nazi would have been beyond the pale. Scenes from liberated concentration camps showing emaciated survivors disgusted millions of decent people across the world. But not one man: George Lincoln Rockwell.

Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazis of the 1950s

Rockwell formed the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in 1959 – shortened a year later to the American Nazi Party. He is widely regarded as the founder of today’s white supremacist movement in the US.

Speaking with his trademark and rather cartoonish pipe stuck in his mouth, Rockwell opined that black people should be returned to Africa and unbelievably, advocated exterminating Jewish people. Unlike other Nazis, he didn’t attempt to deny the holocaust so much as embrace it.

rockwell
Rockwell meets the Nation of Islam in 1961

He also exhibited another common trait of the extreme right – rank opportunism. Convinced he could get elected US president, Rockwell decided to swallow his hatred of Latino and Slav-heritage Americans to build an anti-Jewish and anti-African American white power coalition. But more incredibly, Rockwell flirted with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X.

DISCOVER MORE: Ten weird facts about Hitler

In 1961, he and a group of fellow American Nazi Party members attended a Nation of Islam rally – with permission from the organisers – in the belief that they held a shared hatred of Jews.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that Malcolm X was present, though not NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. The Nazi leader fantasised about a grand alliance with the NOI:

Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad’s stalwart black stormtroopers?”

Mercifully, this alliance never materialised. But it’s a stain on the history of the NOI. In the end, Rockwell’s hatred of African-Americans trumped his ability to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad’s racialised version of Islam. Malcom X later split with the NOI’s black separatist ideology and sent Rockwell a threatening telegram in 1965.

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans….you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation…

Rockwell was assassinated in his car while on a launderette run. He’d apparently forgotten the soap powder and returned to his vehicle when he was gunned down in 1967. His assassin was John Patler, a member of Rockwell’s own party.

Patler’s real name was Yanacki Patsalos but he changed it to Patler in the belief that sounded a bit like Hitler! A social misfit from a Greek family that had migrated to the US. As a young man, he had fallen into gang activity as well as being discharged from the Marines for his Nazi activity. He got twenty years for the killing.

Today’s American Nazis

Anti-semitism and white supremacism are on the rise today in the United States. A recent media report highlighted the growth of hate crime against the dwindling Jewish population in Yaphank – the New York state town that planned to have a Nazi youth camp in 1938. Incredibly, the German-American Settlement League still operates in that town and only recently has a ban on non-German descent people buying property been lifted.

The 2016 riot at Charlottesville evidenced that the extreme right is still able to dragoon disaffected white males into action. Many of them dream of an America run by the jackbooted racially pure.

But that nightmarish vision is highly unlikely – even allowing for Donald Trump! Nevertheless, those of us who value democracy and harmony in our society must remain vigilant against a resurgence of fascist hate politics.

Here is the trailer for the forthcoming season 3 of The Man in the High Castle